In 2006 I converted a cheap Mercedes Sprinter 208D van into a comfortable campervan.  I had no previous experience, but found enough information, and used enough imagination to make a lovely little campervan.  I packed away my possessions, and took off on a road trip, expecting to be away for 2 months.  I came back 9 months later.  I was hooked on campervan'ing.  

I created www.campervanlife.com because I thought people might find the information about that campervan and my 9 month trip useful.

This is the van when I bought it.

Empty Can

and this is how it looked when I had finished converting it.

Read about what I did and why I did it.

Why build a camper van?

I never actually set about to build a camper van. In 2005 I started surfing. I have always lived in Cornwall in England, where surfing is popular, but never really got into it until 2005. I quickly became hooked. I used my BMW 318i car, but it was less than ideal. I couldn't fit my mini-mal board into the car, so it had to go on the roof via soft roof racks. If you've every owned or used a 318i you'll know that whilst they are a pleasure to drive, you can't fit a lot in them as they are saloons. Volkswagen vans are very popular amongst surfers, and the thought of owning a van appealed to me greatly. As did the idea of travelling with my surfboard. I have always loved travelling, and especially like road trips, after having spent a year driving around Australia in 1998. As the summer of 2005 ended and autumn started the weather got colder. After surfing I would change from my wetsuit into my dry clothes are various locations around Cornwall's beaches, and always in the increasing cold. I always wished that I had a van, so that I could change in the van, and have a warm drink afterward. I injured my finger badly whilst chopping firewood at the end of 2005, which bought my surfing to an abrupt end for the year.

The winter of 2005/2006 passed, with me preparing to go travelling to South America and South East Asia in 2006. April came and I decided to stay in Cornwall for the summer, as I was self employed and the additional income of the summer would be great for my trip. I started surfing again. The water was cold and the idea of a van appealed greatly again. I decided to buy a cheap van, just a van, to allow me to enjoy surf trips more.

Which van?

Mercedes Sprinter

The popularity of all Volkswagen vans has driven their cost up greatly in Cornwall and Devon, so much so that they are no a realistic option. T2 and T25 vans are not my sort of thing anyway. They look cool, but they are a bit dated technology wise for me. I have good mechanical skills, thanks to my dad any many jobs on farms and golf courses. I wanted a diesel engine vehicle, no older than 1995 really. And one I could almost stand up in, rather than having to sit down in constantly. I was prepared to go to the south east of England to find a cheaper VW T4, and also a Mercedes Vito, but both these vehicles are low in height, and it is not possible to stand. My BMW car had impressed me so much in terms of build quality that I was tempted by Mercedes vans. Mercedes vans have always been very popular amongst travelers. In early April 2006 whilst still thinking about vans I saw an advert for a SWB 1995 Mercedes Sprinter in Plymouth, about 50 miles away, for £1,100. Market value for a good one was about £2,200 so it was obvious it was not perfect. I 'borrowed' my dad for the day and we caught the train up. My Dad was a Royal Engineer in the Army, and Engineer by trade, and has a good eye for things.

We got to the garage and the guys where helpful. The van was a little tatty, but not too bad. I took it for a drive and it drove well. A few rattles, but everything was straight and there we no wobbles. The radio didn't work, and it needed 2 new rear tyres and a new exhaust. I had a good think and bought the van for £1,000. I drove it back to my Dads without any problems. The van was a 1995 model, 208D, with 185,000 miles.

What to do with the van?

Initially I had just wanted to tidy up the van and have something useful for surfing. Somewhere I can safely store my board and somewhere to get changed, out of the cold wind. The van was filthy and needed a few jobs doing to it. I cleaned the van thoroughly, gave it a good service and fixed some broken bits.. It was clear that the van had been used for building maintenance, gardening and car boot sales.

After some serious consideration I decided to convert the van into a camper van. Having a camper van for the summer would be great. I would be able to take little trips with it and it would make surfing trips much nicer. I did lots of research looking at professional and home made camper vans.

I had no or very little DIY skills. I did not know how I would make any of the furniture, add any plumbing, fit the carpet, or just about anything else. But I am a quick learner and am good at things I apply myself to. I decided to add some form of seating and a kitchen area, which would go over the wheel arch in the back.

New CD player and speakers

I removed the existing cassette/radio to find it was not even connected, and hence why it didn't work. I connected it but it didn't work. I love music and having some music whilst building the van was very important, as well as afterward. The speakers in the dashboard were rubbish, so I needed a new CD player, one that played MP3 discs, and some new speakers. I went down to Flying Sparks, a local supplier, and got a great deal on a Clarion CD player and four 6 x 9 speakers.

My Dad and I fitted the CD player, and two of the 6 x 9 speakers to the bottom of the bulkhead, facing in towards the cab. This was the position suggested by the guys at Flying Sparks, and made the most sense. The stereo is loud and sounded pretty good for a van.

Ply lining the back

I decided to insulate, line and carpet the back of the van. This would make a nice cosy area. The van was already 3/4 ply lined in the back. My dad and I removed the lining and insulated the walls and ceiling. We used regular loft insulation wool. This is cheap and easy to manipulated into any shape. It is important to ensure it does not all fall to the bottom of the area you are insulating though.

We then covered the entire sides and ceiling with 9mm ply wood. 6mm would have been better, but 3/4 of the sides where already done with 9mm ply, so we used the same. The ceiling was tricky, eventually done with 2 panels. We cut around the lights in the back, so that they came through the lining.

We also installed wiring to the back, inside the paneling for a 12v fridge, and a light. I wasn't sure where these would go, but left the wiring in a suitable place. If they were not used it would be easy just to loose them behind the paneling. Adding the wiring afterward would be very difficult. I also added a waste water connector with flap to the wheel arch. The kitchen waste would connect to this internally, and allow a hose outside to be connected to the wheel arch, and then to a waste container on the floor.

Carpeting the back

I decided to carpet the back of the van to make it a lot cosier to be in. I went to Trago Mills, a local business that sells just about everything you can think of, but in a warehouse kind of style. They had a remnant (off cut) piece of carpet that was just about the right size for the back of the van. It was in a nice brown colour, had a rubber back which was perfect for gluing to the walls. It cost about £30.

I took out the wooden bulk head and cut some off the top, as it was too high. I painted the cab side with a water resistant paint, in a colour similar to that of the cab plastic. I carpeted the side that would be inside the back.

I cut pieces of carpet to fit the ceiling and walls. Leaving about 10mm of extra on each side. I used contact adhesive (Evostick at first and then a much cheaper brand, which was fine) to stick the carpet to the ceiling and walls. The ceiling was done in three strips eventually, to avoid mistakes. My mate Jess helped me with sticking the glue coated carpet to the ceiling and walls, as it is a tricky procedure.

Once the glue had set I used a stanley knife to trim the excess carpet from each panel. More glue was used to stick down the edges where necessary. I got some 6mm ply and made some panels for the 2 rear doors and side sliding door. I carpeted these panels and screwed them to the door.

I bought some vinyl flooring from Trago Mills. I fitted it to the floor of the van. I didn't stick it down at first, I took it back out and continued working so that it would not get damaged. With the excess I covered the box that had been made by someone else to go over the wheel arch. My kitchen would cover and incorporate this in some way.

I made some simple boxes to cover the rear of the speakers that came through the bulkhead. This was to stop anything metallic sticking to them, and also to stop anything puncturing the speaker cones.

Seating

I spent many hours looking around for caravan seating foam. Foam is expensive, and shipping costs are high should you need it delivered. I tried local caravan breakers but they weren't very helpful. I bought some seating foam cushions on eBay. It was a set from a caravan or camper, and had a corner piece so that seats could be arranged in an L shape, which I was hoping to do.

 

With the cushions I could now make the seating furniture. I decided to make 2 bases, with hinged lids which would allow storage underneath. I made the frames out of timber, and the top from 9mm ply. 9mm ply is strong enough to not need any support in the middle. I made the top smaller than the size of the frame to ensure the top would open easily without catching on surrounding cushions. I attached the top to the frame using hinges. I recessed the hinges into the timber and the top to allow a snug fit when the top was closed. I also made the hinge sit away from the back of the frame to allow the top to open without hitting the wall.

I tried out one seat and was happy with it. I made the second in the same way. With the second base I made a second top, which hinged to the first. This would be the bed section. When folded out it would make a double bed. The hinged lid would make it fit well. When folded away it was not easy to spot that one seat was higher than the other.

I screwed the seating frames onto the walls and floor. I measured and cut 9mm panels to fit the front and sides of the seating frames.

You may be curious how the fold-out top of the seat was held up when being used as the bed?  I thought about several ideas, which all seemed complicated.  I settled on the simplest and cheapest option.  I bought a thick fence post, about 3 or 4 inches square, and cut it into 5 lengths that would hold up the top at the right level.  I stored these 5 lengths in the seat box.  When it was time to make the bed, I would get them out, place them on the floor as seen below, then fold the seat top out onto it.  It work perfectly, and never went wrong.

Kitchen

I wanted a basic kitchen area with fresh water, a sink with running waste water, a fridge and a gas stove. I didn't want to fit a gas fridge as I didn't like the idea of it being on all of the time. I got an electric fridge and leisure battery for £45 from a guy in St Austell. He had made a camper van with a Sprinter, although a much bigger one, but the engine had blown up, so he was selling the bits from it. He gave me a Haynes manual to motorcaravans.

 

My friend Jess has a gas stove I could borrow. It was old and filthy from being stored in a garage. I cleaned it all, wire brushed it and painted it with hamerite. I bought a sink from a VW T25 for £5 on eBay. I bought a foot whale pump for the fresh water from eBay also. The foot pump allows one to pump water and use both hands in the sink, which is very useful.

 

I measured everything up and made a basic design. The fresh water tank would sit in a cupboard to the left, with the foot pump underneath. The sink would sit to the right of this, with a cupboard holding the gas bottle underneath. To the right would be a recess for the stove. With the fridge underneath in a cupboard. The frame would be timber, and the paneling would be 9mm for strength and to avoid warping on the doors, which can happen with 6mm.

A gas bottle was fitted and secured using straps. The sink waste pipe was connected to the flap in the wheel arch.

Leisure battery and circuits

I bought a fuse box, a caravan split charge relay unit and a battery meter to go with my leisure battery. I also bought two lights to go inside the back of the van. I fixed the leisure battery under the passenger seat. The split charge relay unit was used to charge the leisure battery when the ignition was running. The split charge relay unit also had an output for a 12v fridge. I used this to allow my fridge to be run when the ignition was running. I also added a switch to allow fridge to be run from the leisure battery also, for example when parked. I changed the CD player wiring to use the leisure battery. I added one of the two lights. Each electrical item had its own fuse. Including the battery level meter. To increase my battery power when parked up for long periods of time I bought and fitted 2 additional leisure batteries. These where connected to the first in parallel, simply making a 'battery bank' from the first leisure battery. No other wiring needed to be changed.

Book cupboard

I wanted to add a small book cupboard to the side of the seat by the sliding door. This cupboard would cover the speaker showing through the bulkhead, use up the space here, and provide an extra seat should the van be busy socially. I made the basic frame. I added 6mm panels to the sides, including one of the speakers that would face into the back of the van. I added a hinged 9mm top. I added the second speaker to the seat running along the side of the van.

Tall cupboard

I decided to add a tall cupboard to the end of the side seat. Initially I wasn't sure whether to leave the cupboard as a short one, to allow more light to come in and a surfboard to be stored against the wall, or to make it full height to the ceiling. I decided on the later for maximum storage. I measured and added one 6mm side the wardrobe. The van walls and ceiling both slope so a lot of trimming was required to make the side panel fit. I cut a second panel for the cupboard. Both sides where secured to the walls.

 

]I added various shelves with different heights between the shelves. I added a timber stop to each shelf to prevent things from sliding out. I also fleeted the shelves downwards towards the back, to further prevent things sliding forward and against the door.

I fitted the 9mm doors. A larger one to the top and a smaller one beneath.

Overhead cupboard

I wanted to add more storage and use the space above the kitchen. I carefully measured and made a frame for the cupboard. I used L shape brackets to add strength to the frame (thanks for the tip Trev). One end of the cupboard would sit around the sliding door aperture, which came away from the wall. So the frame had to be made with this in mind.

 

I screwed the frame to the wall. I cut and fitted 6mm panels to the sides and bottom. 9mm doors where fitted to the front. I added one of the 12v lights to the underside of the cupboard, but away from the stove where heat and steam would be generated.

Varnish

The furniture was now finished. I decided to varnish the ply wood to protect it and to give a nice finish. The 6mm ply was darker than the 9mm, and the varnish would help to blend the two together.

The kitchen area and overhead cupboard had 3 or 4 coats of varnish, to provide maximum protection from splashed water and steam from cooking. All other plywood had 1 or 2 coats.

Extras

I wanted to carry a surfboard in the van, up against a wall. So I got some door handles and screwed them to the wall. This allowed bungee's to be used to attach the board.

Curtains

I added net curtain cables to run curtains on. I bought some thick black curtain material from eBay. I wanted to make curtains that would completely stop light coming in or out. From the outside the van looked like a regular van, there was no sign of it being a camper van. I wanted to keep this, as it was a great security feature. This later become know as a stealth camper. I didn't want any light escaping from around the curtains to give away the fact that it was a camper van. My dad gave me a revision lesson with the sowing machine and between us we created some curtains and tiebacks. Velcro was sowed to the sides to allow it to be stuck to the carpeted walls.

The Pampy Camper

The van affectionately became known as The Pampy Camper. I became known as Pampy, due a knack of always having what everyone needed at any given time, oh, and a granddads car rear seat blanket. As my camper van, the van simply became known as The Pampy Camper.

Weekends and surfing

The van was used regularly at weekends and during the week for nights away, barbeque's and surfing trips and at festivals. It was great to have somewhere warm and cosy to retreat to.

Things I wished I had done

There are a few things I wished I had done to the van

  1. Added a roof vent - as I do not have any windows in the back I wished I had added a roof vent to allow air to run through when the door is shut. I think this would have been fairly easy to add, and wouldn't compromise the security, or stealth camper status of the van. My house mate Adam had suggested adding a circulating vent, which would have been a great idea. Wished I'd listened Ads!
  2. Used black 1-way tinting rather than silver on the rear doors. The silver attracts attention, whereas black would not.

Things I wished were different (but chose not to do)

  1. A window in the sliding door - having a window (an opening one) in the sliding door of the van would allow air to move around in the back when the sliding door was shut. I chose not to do this as this would indicate that the van was a camper van, and I wanted it to remain looking like a regular van, for security purposes.
  2. Walk-through into the cab - I wish it was possible to walk from the back into the cab. I chose not to do this because of the cost of getting a single passenger seat to the replace the double. if I had got the single seat I would also want to make it swivel around. I decided on the design I have as it fits my needs well. I do not need the extra seating of the swivel seat. It does annoy me that I have to learn over to adjust the CD player though.

Europe 2006

After closing my business I decided to go on a surfing trip through France, Spain and Portugal with the van. I am writing this from a mountain in Spain's Picos de Europa. I have done over 2000 miles, and have done nothing more than add a drop of oil to the engine. I'll let you know how it gets on below!

  • 6th September 2006 - I leave Cornwall
  • 8th September 2006 - I get to France
  • 3rd October 2006 - I wrote this page from the mountains of Picos de Europa in Spain
  • Late October - I get to Peniche in Portugal
  • Late November - I leave Peniche, having stayed there for a month
  • December - February Mostly in the Alentejo and Algarve, Portugal. I also spent a weekend in Porto and a week in Lisbon
  • March - After spending the Winter in Portugal I head to Andalucia in Spain. The change of environment is just what I need. I meet lots of people and spend 6 weeks there.
  • April - Back to the Algarve and Alentejo of Portugal
  • May - I drive from the Algarve to Madrid, and then onto Barcelona. It is an amazing journey with many landscapes.
  • May - A weekend at he Spanish Grand Prix, then back to the North coast of Spain
  • June - Back home to Cornwall, after 9 months of traveling.
  • July - August - Summer at home enjoying the van
  • September 2007 - I sell the van to my friend Rich. I will spending the winter backpacking, and want someone to be able to use the van.

Another van in the future

I will definitely convert another van in the future. Doing the conversion, and using the van are both fun. This van is fairly large which is great for storage and living in whilst in Europe. However it costs more than a small van in fuel and in parts in General. Driving it is not much of a problem as it is easy. However, for surf trips and as my primary vehicle I like the idea of converting a car derived van such as a Peugeot Export. There are several other similar vans made by Fiat and Citroen. These vans are based on a car chassis, and drive just like a car. Brand new diesel empty ones do 50mpg!

I like the idea of fitting an 'across' bed, just like in a VW, that folds out. I would not add running water and a sink, but would rather just keep a can of clean water and a bowl.

If however I find myself doing another trip like my European trip then I might make another big van conversion. there are so many possibilities.

 

Questions and Answers from people

Hi Darren,
 
Just looking for a bit of info on the conversion, I'm planning on turning a 99' Citroen Berlingo Panel Van into a weekend surf wagon,
 
Regarding the panelling...how did you secure the roof panels?, would those battens be glued to the roof panel and then screwed into? I was thinking of just glueing two battens to each of the roof panels and then using them as a fixing point for screws? Also have you had any problems with condensation after not using a moisture-barrier on the insulation..as I was thinking this would be a problem, I'm planning to treat the panels for rust prevention, then use either sealed loft insulation or bag normal insulation in plastic.....
 
Cheers
Conor
 
Hi Conor

The roof panels were 9mm ply wood bought from a DIY store. I would consider using 6mm next time as it's more flexible, but 9mm allows heavier things to be screwed/secured to it. It wasn't too difficult to cut the panels into shape.

The roof panels were secured to the metal battens already going across the ceiling of the van, using self tapping screws. I know a lot of people have used very strong adhesive to secure wood battens to the ceiling, and then screwed wood panels to that.

At first the insulation was fine for moisture, but I didn't check it after prolonged time spent in the van.

Cheers

Darren

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